Expert section: Mate Kontra – Throughout my time playing soccer, I’ve been coached by ex-pro, Division One, and Academy level coaches. Currently I play at the MLS-Next level as a wingback, in California. Today I will share my experience regarding the best exercises to practice during the season.
Soccer is an incredibly competitive sport with very few players reaching the next level in their careers.
Players that do, however, have at least one thing in common.
They worked on their skills outside of team training.
Over time, players will have significantly more experience on the ball than their competition, allowing them to perform better.
So in this article, we will be going over the 4 most essential skills that you need to practice in-season to set yourself apart from your competition.
Related article: 6 Soccer Skills You Should Master During the Off-Season
4 Vital Skills to Train During the Season
Before we get into the list, it’s important to know that during the season you should avoid heavy work that strains the muscles.
Coaches are responsible for managing your workload, so there is no need for heavy-duty work outside of practice.
Rather, ball skills or tactical knowledge are prioritized to enhance your game.
This way the muscles in your body will not be fatigued, ensuring peak performance during each training session.
With that in mind, let’s get right into the list.
#1: Tactical knowledge
The most significant skill that you can practice without putting any stress on your body is your tactical knowledge.
While you may be decent with your feet, your knowledge is what drives your actions.
Dribbling into the wrong space or passing to the wrong player will only harm the team’s momentum.
Here are the three best ways that you can improve your tactical knowledge.
1. Passing Patterns
When talking mentioning tactical knowledge, it’s impossible to forget about passing patterns.
Passing patterns are the best way to quickly find the next option and progress the attack forward.
Teammates’ movement causes gaps to open between the opponents, allowing you to pass into open space.
Recognizing these spaces before they open puts you a step ahead of your opponents because it allows you to predict their next move.
So instead of focusing on what the best passing option is, you will immediately know where you need to pass without wasting time.
2. Understanding Coach’s Instructions
Understanding the coach’s instructions is a fundamental aspect of improving tactical skills because soccer is a team game.
Players have to constantly work together to achieve their goal of scoring.
When players have different ideas on the pitch, they will have no chemistry and the team will be disorganized.
Leading to unsuccessful passing combinations, difficulty progressing the attack forward, and a tough time defending.
So knowing the coach’s strategies and instructions is a vital aspect of improving tactical knowledge in soccer.
3. Analyzing Gameplay
Analyzing gameplay is one of the most underrated ways that you can improve your tactical knowledge.
In general, start by watching all the game films that you have and find every moment that you participated offensively or defensively.
At each moment, write down everything that you see wrong, and correct those mistakes in your next game.
For starters, here are the basics:
Since your passing ability is the primary outlet of your tactical knowledge, the best way to start this process is by analyzing every passing play.
By becoming familiar with your passing weaknesses, you will be able to correct them during a match and find more options that can help you escape tight situations.
After analyzing passing options, you should focus on recognizing patterns on the field such as triangles that teammates make.
This will help you choose the best passing option, allowing your teammates to perform third, or even fourth man runs.
Next, learning how to recognize open space should be your goal.
By recognizing open space, you will be able to progress your team forward by dribbling, in the case that there are no beneficial passing options.
Summary of the basics:
- Analyze each passing play
- Recognize all passing options
- Pass to open teammates
- Recognize patterns
- Set teammates up for the next pass
- Find possible third-man runs
- Recognize open space
- Don’t force passes
- Dribble into space when you have to
#2: Ball Reception (First Touch)
The first skill that involves a ball on this list, is the ball reception, or first touch.
Every move performed on the ball depends on the first touch.
A good first touch helps players maintain control of the ball, allowing them to quickly perform the next action and progress the team forward.
On the contrary, a bad first touch will force players to adapt and waste time by taking extra touches on the ball.
This can lead to losing possession in dangerous areas, and even conceding a goal because of it.
Two types of receptions should be practiced; aerial receptions and ground receptions.
Since the majority of the passes, interceptions, or tackles in a match will be on the ground, mastering ground reception is crucial.
Two aspects of the ground reception need to be learned before the skill is mastered.
First, the technique.
The technique can be quickly learned by using a rebounder or wall to bounce the ball toward yourself repeatedly, taking a touch each time.
Until you can set up the next pass with only one touch, I don’t recommend moving to the next step.
Second, the distance and direction of the touch.
Learning not just to kill the ball to set up a pass, but rather aiming the ball toward a direction is also very helpful in a match.
It will give you the ability to use opponents’ momentum against them and beat them with one touch.
Alternatively, it can help you save time by immediately taking a touch into open space to progress the ball forward.
Always practice with both feet!
Aerial reception is another type of touch that players often perform in matches.
Any pass or shot in the air will require you to settle the ball before it bounces.
The two components of aerial receptions are reading the trajectory of the ball, and the technique of cushioning it with the first touch.
Both of these skills can be learned with wall juggling.
Generally, the goal is to learn to pass the ball back and forth without letting it touch the ground.
This will benefit you in a game because you will be able to settle the ball from the air and adapt to tough situations quickly.
Needless to say, this skill has to be practiced with both feet.
The ability to pass the ball with accuracy and precision is a fundamental skill that all soccer players must possess.
The higher the level of play, the more experienced and intelligent players are.
Of course, to translate a higher level of understanding of the game into action, players must have exceptional passing abilities.
So passing skills must always be practiced to ensure that they are adequate for the level of play.
Three types of passing techniques must be learned to be able to perform a pass in any scenario.
Short passes, the ping, and the zing, otherwise known as the low-driven pass.
1. Short passes
Short passes are the most common type of pass performed in a game.
They are used in any scenario from just circulating the ball, to giving a pass across their goal box for a teammate to score.
The best way that I found to practice short passing is with the use of a wall.
Simply, pass the ball firmly toward the wall so that it skims across the ground and bounces back to you without lifting off the ground.
Then you can either take a touch or progress into one-touch passing.
Focus on always hitting the center of the ball and skimming it across the ground.
Hitting it too low or too high will cause it to lift off the ground.
2. The Ping
The ping technique is an aerial pass where the ball travels straight through the air toward a teammate.
Players must lock their ankles with their toes pointing down, using their laces to drive through the ball and lift it off the ground.
It is arguably the best passing technique for long distances because the flight path is predictable, so players can easily control it with one touch.
To practice this technique, a partner is required who will receive, then pass the ball back.
As we said previously, the toes should be pointing down when hitting the ball, and the laces should be used to strike it.
The contact area is an inch below the center of the ball, creating a straight trajectory with a backspin on the ball.
3. Low-Driven Pass (The Zing)
The zing technique is the least used out of the three, however, it can be beneficial in many scenarios in a match.
Using the zing is advantageous because it saves time by traveling faster than regular ground passes.
It can be used to target teammates who are farther away, but not blocked by any opponents.
To train this technique, a wall or partner is required.
Similar to the ping, toes should be pointing down and the laces used to strike it.
The difference is that the contact area of the zing technique is the exact center of the ball.
When performed correctly, the ball skims across the playing surface without any bounces or lifting off the ground.
A common mistake that players make is hitting the ball above the center of it, causing it to bounce.
The quickest and easiest way to iron out this issue is gradually hitting the ball higher and higher, closer to the center.
Eventually, the ball will stay on the ground and you will have mastered the zing technique.
Mentality is undoubtedly one of the largest factors in soccer that can make or break a player.
A great mentality can help players get through tough times such as injuries, a series of poor performances, or losses.
It focuses on things that can be controlled and improved.
So if you’re reading this right now, consider it a sign that your mentality is headed in the right direction.
How to improve mentality?
One of my coaches at the MLS-Next level used to tell me a quote.
“Pain is temporary, honor is forever”.
No matter how heavy your chest may feel, staying resilient will be worth it in the end.
It sounds cliche, but not many players can honestly tell themselves that they deserve to play more than anyone because they fought for it.
So which type of player will you be?
Tactical knowledge is one of the best skills to improve during the season because it puts zero stress on the body.
It’s essentially the gateway to translating skill onto the pitch because it directs skill into actions that benefit the team.
Ball reception is also a crucial skill that should be trained during the season because it is the first action that players take to set themselves up for success.
Taking a great touch is the difference maker in building the attack quickly enough to score a goal.
Next is passing, the primary skill used to translate tactical knowledge to the field.
The three main passing techniques are the short pass, the ping, and the low-driven pass.
Last but not least, mentality is one of the greatest factors in deciding how far players can make it.
Having the right mentality will keep players in the game even through the toughest of times, and still come out on top.
Remember, “Pain is temporary, honor is forever”.
Image Attribution & Licensing
Featured Image: ‘Soccer Player Ready to Play’ by Nigel Mispa (Licensed via Unsplash)
#1: ‘Soccer Off-Season Training Gear’ by rawf8 (Licensed via EnvatoElements)
#2: ‘Attacking patterns in the final third using the 4-3-3 formation!’ by Code Football (YouTube)
#3: ‘Soccer Player Practicing Their First Touch’ by Jeffrey F Lin (Licensed via Unsplash)
#4: ‘Soccer Player Performing a Ground Pass’ by Jeffrey F Lin (Licensed via Unsplash)
#5: ‘Physically and Mentally Strong Athlete Flipping Tires’ by bernardbodo (Licensed via EnvatoElements)
#6: ‘Excited Soccer Team Celebrating a Win’ by drazenphoto (Licensed via EnvatoElements)